Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Monarch Migrations a Serious Business


By Elaine Meinel Supkis

Monarch butterflies have suffered serious losses due to violent weather and agricultural destruction of their milkweeds they depend upon. Some scientists have flown a light aircraft along with this year's migration to highlight and study the travails of monarch migrations.

From the New York Times:
As an expert hang glider and ultralight pilot from the mountains where the monarchs winter, he felt a strange kinship with them, and the notion of flying with them on their yearly migration from Canada to Mexico became first an itch, then an obsession, his family members said.

So when Mr. Gutiérrez wheeled his ultralight plane painted like a monarch over the butterfly sanctuary here at noon on Thursday and brought it swooping in to land on a stretch of mountain highway, it marked the rarest of human experiences, a dream come true.

He had traveled more than 4,375 miles from Montreal to Michoacán State, following the butterflies at low altitude. He logged more than 90 hours of flying over 72 days, averaging about 60 miles a day, stopping dozens of times to talk to scientists and butterfly fanatics, in a feat of aviation meant to call attention to the insect's precarious situation.
Do click on this story to see the photos as well as the rest of this tale.

Monarchs are most amazing. This tiny creature has beautiful colors. Wafting on the winds, they travel thousands of miles. When I lived in Coney Island, each fall, I would delight in watching them skirt the edge of the sea as they moved south in huge numbers, the orange sparkles glinting in the hazy shafts of sunlight angling across the tossing waves. When the north wind blew, huge numbers of butterflies would cartwheel past, startling the seagulls.

When we moved to our upstate mountain, the 300 year old fields had and still have, many milkweeds growing along the perimeter of the pastures. These were home to the monarchs who visited our mountain in such numbers in the spring and fall that the fields looked like they suddenly blossomed with orange poppies. When the horses and sheep ran across the fields, the orange cloud would suddenly lift like a fog and hover only to descend again.

The birds would leave them alone because of the milkweed: it makes the monachs poisonous which is why they are so colorful. A warning flag. Viceroy butterflies taste good but over the eons, they evolved to mimic the monarchs via natural selection: any one of them that looks even remotely like a monarch is avoided by the birds who have excellent color vision. Thanks to the birds, we have a magnificent color display from the butterfly populations. Just like all our pretty flowers, many of them are due to bees being pretty picky about their color schemes.

Indeed, the palatte of nature has been vastly enriched by our tiny friends, the insects. They introduced color and noise to the world. They are nature's artists.

Today, I seldom see any monarchs. This happened quite suddenly, in the last 10 years. Particularily after that terrible winter in Mexico that alternately froze or soaked all the butterflies back during a really nasty La Nina. I am glad someone is trying to bring attention to the plight of the monarchs.

They are one royalty I want to keep on the throne!

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Cow Tipping Stories Are Bull


By Elaine Meinel Supkis

I have raised many farm animals. Tipping over anything bigger than a chicken is very hard and even chickens are hard to tip. Ticking off farm animals is easy, though. Try wandring around my horses' pasture.

From the London Times:
IT IS the kind of story you hear from a friend of a friend — how, after a long night in a rural hostelry and at a loss for entertainment in the countryside, they head out into a nearby field.

There, according to the second-hand accounts, they sneak up on an unsuspecting cow and turn the poor animal hoof over udder.

But now, much to the relief of dairy herds, the sport of cow-tipping has been debunked as an urban, or perhaps rural, myth by scientists at a Canadian university.
Aw, we can't con city slickers into trying to push a cow over! What fun it has been, watching people run from angry cattle! Even a lowly milch kuh can run impressively fast if she is motivated and chasing humans is great motivation. Don't even ask about the bulls!

Chris and I used to have one of the world's biggest oxen. They were truly Babe the Blue Ox in size, they towered over me and my husband's head barely cleared their shoulders and he is over six feet tall. They weighed over a ton and a half each and required a full sized cattle car to ferry them around. Mostly, they walked in tandem.

When you push against an animal, awake or asleep, they always push back. The harder you push at them the more they lean into you! Sparky, the smaller draft horse, specialized in this. The ferrier would yell at him because he loved to lean on everyone, a crushing weight. I would slap him for this, he is not allowed to lean on me. He also loved to "accidentally" step on feet when we got him, he would even grind his hoof into the foot, he really liked hearing people scream. I trained him to stop doing that.

Don't ask how.

Anyway, the sheep: they, too, were hard to push around. If I wanted them to go somewhere, the most futile way to move them was to push. Having Coleen, the sheep dog, bark at them and rush their hindquarters worked, mostly I would bang on their grain bucket and yell, "Lambies, to me!"

To move Chip and Dale's 3 tons of mass, aside from the happy grain bucket, was to take a little stick with a string tied to it and lightly whap them with it saying, "Come on up, boys!" and they would then blink and begin lumbering along. Usually, all we had to do was say, "Come with me, guys," and they would happily follow.

Their favorite amusements were to take those huge round bales of hay that weigh over 300lbs, hook them with the horns and roll them around. Best was to roll them onto Greenhollow Road and stop traffic. Better than that was to knock the fence down, stroll to the village and stand shoulder to shoulder on Rt 22. Even semis couldn't influence the boys. They would happily chew their cuds until the State Troopers show up and then lowing happily, turn and lumber back up the mountain, swinging their tails. Never did the State Troopers push them.

I remember the news about a man who honked his truck horn at an elephant parade. One of them got mad at him and flipped his truck, then stomped on it. The oxen I had could do the same, namely, tip over trucks with their horns. All they had to do was brush past something big to knock it down. The only reason their stables stood was because they were very very careful. At first, they would knock down walls but then I would scold them and show them their feeding troughs were now under debrie and no grain for them! They would look mournfully at me and moo. After a few such episodes they were very careful when in their home. The horse used to reach over through the air space above the stalls to annoy them. They would hook their horns right at the top of the roof to see if they could snag Sparky who wanted to steal the brass balls on their horns. This fight over the brass balls would wake us up at night and I would have to come out and scold all of them. They couldn't understand. After all, they don't really sleep! Like giant teens.

Sparky could push Chip and Dale around. He did this stallion-style, namely, he would rear up and bite them on the top of their long necks. This really annoyed them because they couldn't hit him with the horns from behind. They used to try hitting us sideways with the horns but we trained them to stop that, too.

Don't ask how.

If you did, I would talk for hours about how to raise oxen or tame horses.

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